Truth Commission: Guatemala
Truth Commissions Digital Collection
Truth Commission: Commission for Historical Clarification (Comisión para el Esclarecimiento Histórico)
Dates of Operation: February 1997 - February 1999 (2 years)
Background: From the mid-1950s through the 1970s Guatemala was characterized by increasing state repression against citizens in response to rising unrest by various militia groups. In 1982 the Guatemalan military conducted a scorched earth campaign against the newly formed Revolutionary National Unity of Guatemala (URNG), resulting in the a high number of deaths.
In 1987, the first government-URNG talks were hosted in Spain, yet URNG continued subversive activities during this time further weakening the government. The parties returned to peace talks facilitated by the United Nations in 1993, which were ultimately successful. The Commission for Historical Clarification was established on June 23, 1994, as a part of a peace agreement between the Guatemalan government and the URNG, and the Accord for Firm and Lasting Peace was signed in 1996.
Mandate: The Commission for Historical Clarification was created to clarify human rights violations related to the thirty-six year internal conflict from 1960 to the United Nation's brokered peace agreement of 1996, and to foster tolerance and preserve memory of the victims.
Commissioners and Structure: There were three commissioners, two men and one woman (of Maya descent), including two Guatemalans. German law professor, Christian Tomuschat, of Berlin's Humboldt University, chaired the commission. The chair (“moderator”) of the commission was appointed by the Secretary-General of the United Nations. The mandate stipulated that one member had to be a Guatemalan of irreproachable conduct, appointed by the chair with the agreement of the parties to the peace agreement. The other member had to be an academic selected by the moderator, with the agreement of the parties, from a list proposed by the University presidents.
Report: The Commission presented its final report, Guatemala: Memory of Silence (Guatemala: Memoria del Silencio), in Spanish to representatives of the Guatemalan government, Guatemalan National Revolutionary Unity (URNG), and the U.N. Secretary General on February 25, 1999. The report is also available in English on the American Association for the Advancement of Science website.
- The commission found that repressive practices were perpetrated by institutions within the state, in particular the judiciary, and were not simply a response of the armed forces. The report stated that in the four regions most affected by the violence, “agents of the state committed acts of genocide against groups of Mayan people”(Final Report, English Version, para. 122).
- In total, the Commission conducted 7,200 interviews with 11,000 persons cataloging the interviews in a database. Declassified information from the U.S. government was included in the data.
- The total number of people killed was over 200,000; 83% of the victims were Mayan and 17% were Ladino.
- "State forces and related paramilitary groups were responsible for 93% of the violations documented" (Final Report, English Version, para. 15).
- "Insurgent actions produced 3% of the human rights violations and acts of violence” (Final Report, English Version, para. 21).
- Social mobilization was at its peak from 1978 to 1982 and so too was the rate of killings and human rights abuses.
- The commission was not allowed to name names and did not include names of perpetrators or a call for prosecution in its report.
- Reparations were recommended such as the erection of monuments, dedication of public parks or buildings, reclamation of Mayan sites and financial assistance for exhumations.
- It also called for structural reform, mainly in the military and judiciary and encouraged a culture of mutual respect and the strengthening of the democratic process.
- Without announcing any follow-up measures, Guatemala's President Arzu apologized for the role of the government in past abuses when he received the commission’s report.
- The U.S. government reacted coolly to allegations of its role in the Guatemalan civil war that were strongly condemned by the report.
- In 2004, the Guatemalan Congress approved Decree 06-2004 which establishes a national remembrance day for victims of the conflict. The "Day of Dignity" is since commemorated every year on February 25.
- There has been very limited success in prosecuting perpetrators. Only one Guatemalan officer has been convicted of human rights violations related to the report. However, in 2010 additional trials began against former military officials. Three former soldiers are accused of crimes committed in the 1982 massacre in Dos Erres in Northern Guatemala.
- The commission’s final report was used in a case filed by Rigoberta Menchú Tum against the president of Congress in Guatemala, José Efraín Ríoas Montt and seven other militaries for their involvement in atrocities. On July 7, 2006, a Spanish judge ordered Efrain Rios Montt and his co-defendants to be taken into detention, and an international arrest warrant was issued. Since 2001, the case has also been investigated by the Guatemalan judiciary.
- In an agreement between the United Nations and the government of Guatemala, the International Commission against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG) was set up and entered into force in September 2007. The CICIG is mandated to conduct independent investigations, present criminal complaints to Guatemala’s Public Prosecutor and take part in criminal proceedings as a complementary prosecutor. It also promotes legal and institutional reform and publishes periodic reports.
- In 2009, a retired colonel and three former paramilitaries were convicted for the forced disappearance of peasants during the civil war. After a civilian was sentenced to 150 years in prison earlier in 2009, this was the first successful prosecution of an army officer in connection with disappearances.
- A National Reparations Commission was established in 2005, but decisions about policies and process have been slow.
Special Notes: Subsequent to the commission's work, a "Diario militar" (military logbook) was found that had registered the names and data of persons unlawfully arrested, tortured, and put to death by a unit of the security forces. The Forensic Anthropological Foundation of Guatemala (FAFG) continues to exhume mass graves contributing valuable information for further investigations.
- Chapman, Audrey R. and Patrick Ball. "The Truth of Truth Commissions: Comparative Lessons from Haiti, South Africa, and Guatemala." Human Rights Quarterly 23, (2001): 1-43.
- Fundación de Antropología Forense. Available at http://www.fafg.org/ (accessed July 1, 2008).
- Grainger, Sarah. " First soldier convicted in Guatemala disappearances." Reuters, December 4, 2009. Available a http://af.reuters.com/article/worldNews/idAFTRE5B30MT20091204 (accessed January 14, 2010).
- Grainger, Sarah. "Guatemalan ex-soldiers on trial in landmark war case." Reuters, September 8, 2010. Available at http://www.reuters.com/article/2010/09/09/us-guatemala-trial-idUSTRE6880FQ20100909 (accessed October 26, 2011).
- Hayner, Priscilla B. Unspeakable Truths: Facing the Challenge of Truth Commissions. New York: Routledge, 2002.
- Peterson, Trudy Huskamp. Final Acts: A Guide to Preserving the Records of Truth Commissions. Washington, D.C.; Baltimore: Woodrow Wilson Center Press; Johns Hopkins University Press, 2005. Available at http://www.wilsoncenter.org/book/final-acts-guide-to-preserving-the-records-truth-commissions (accessed October 26, 2011).
- Rother, Larry. "Searing Indictment." New York Times, February 27, 1999. Available at http://query.nytimes.com/gst/fullpage.html?res=9F02E5D6143CF934A15751C0A96F958260 (accessed July 1, 2008).
- Tomuschat, Christian. "Clarification Commission in Guatemala." Human Rights Quarterly 23, (2001): 233-258.
- Trial Watch. "Efrain Rios Montt." Track Impunity Always (TRIAL). Available at www.trial-ch.org/en/resources/trial-watch/trial-watch/profile.html (accessed February 9, 2011).